After Homs, southern front likely next test for rebels

Defenders of Naameh say his "confession" was coerced. (Youtube)

BEIRUT: The two competing narratives over the war in Syria – regime steadily piling up victories versus rebels stubbornly bleeding an embattled enemy – have been around for a while, perhaps the best evidence of the fluid military stalemate. Last week’s rebel departure from the Old City of Homs was trumpeted as the latest victory for the regime, but the war is raging on more than half a dozen fronts.

Sources familiar with the opposition’s military situation are concerned that the next setback will appear in the south, even though rebel groups have been slowly but gradually seizing territory and equipment from regime forces there.

On the same day that government officials and troops fanned out in parts of the central city that had been lost to them for nearly two years, after a few thousand hungry and exhausted fighters finally left Homs by bus, the regime experienced at least three other setbacks.

One came in Aleppo, when fighters from the Islamic Front alliance razed to the ground the Carlton Hotel, a makeshift military headquarters, after several months of tunneling under the structure. The blast reportedly killed at least 14 regime personnel – or dozens, according to the Front.

In the southern province of Qunaitra, rebels seized the village of Qahtanieh, just several kilometers from the provincial capital.

The city of Qunaitra itself lies largely in ruins because the Syrian authorities declined to rebuild it after it was destroyed by Israeli troops in 1974, but the rebel push is symbolically important because it also puts them only 1 kilometer from the 1974 disengagement line with Israel.

Meanwhile, the Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon – where regime forces backed by Hezbollah fighters have achieved victories in recent months – has re-emerged.

Some of the same rebel groups that retreated from their positions in Qalamoun have regrouped and launched a new campaign in the eastern part of the region, which stretches across two international highways – the north-south road to Aleppo and Turkey, and the desert highway leading east to Iraq.

After seizing military base 559 in eastern Qalamoun last week, they found themselves under air attack Friday, as the regime sought to neutralize their capture of large quantities of weapons and ammunition. In the end, the rebels claimed they made off with 35 regime tanks – the biggest such haul of the war – while 70 were destroyed by regime aircraft.

Thus, on the day that rebels lost their foothold in Old Homs, the regime lost a military headquarters in Aleppo, a huge arms cache near Damascus and one of the few remaining villages in Qunaitra province it holds.

The loss of Homs itself is being blamed widely on the lack of resources available to rebel groups and even the regime has termed it a “moral” victory, since the fighters were allowed to leave and deploy elsewhere, while a complex set of prisoner swaps accompanied the deal.

Anti-regime media activists interviewed several rebel fighters before they left Homs and several angrily said they were “let down” by the international community and the group of countries that supposedly back the armed opposition.

One fighter was more specific, as he talked about the disappointment that came when rebel units in “rural Homs” failed to try and break the regime siege.

An observer familiar with rebel forces in the central and southern parts of the country told The Daily Star the accusation was accurate.

“There are two leading rebel groups active in rural Homs, and both are connected to the [rebel] Free Syrian Army leadership. But they obviously had orders from foreign countries to not intervene,” he said.

As for the southern front, the theme of “betrayal” by the armed opposition’s own backers is also emerging in the latest minidrama to unfold there. Opposition supporters are afraid that it could erupt into the kind of jihadists versus rebel conflict that has enveloped northern and eastern parts of the country.

Rebel units have been steadily making gains in Deraa and Qunaitra provinces but the situation was thrown into disarray last week when militants from the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, kidnapped a prominent FSA commander, Col. Ahmad Naameh.

They then aired a videotaped “confession” by Naameh, who said the countries backing the rebels had ordered him last year to allow a strategic town, Khirbet al-Ghazaleh, to be taken by the regime.

“Instead of handing over Naameh to a Shariah Committee, to let it take responsibility for the matter, Nusra continues to hold Naameh,” the observer said.

On Sunday, rebel groups reportedly said the latest negotiations to free Naameh had failed, as speculation grew that he had been executed.

Widely criticized for allegedly mismanaging funding for the revolt, and spending too much time in Jordan rather than on the front lines, Naameh is not a particularly popular figure.

But the incident, depending on Naameh’s ultimate fate, could spark the kind of rebel infighting that has been absent in Deraa, the so-called “cradle” of the Syrian uprising.

“It seems that a trap has been set for Nusra, and Nusra fell into it,” the observer said.

Nusra seized Naameh just days after he issued a public challenge to Islamist militias, claiming he was establishing a new, mainstream rebel front in the south.

As for predicting the wider course of the war, observers believe that even with the regime’s takeover of Old Homs, there are too many variables still in play. One of the most important, they say, involves the regime’s handover of chemical weapons. They expect new developments in the war once this is completed, when the final batch of chemicals is shipped abroad.

The regime’s military strategy, the observer said, highlighted a conservative, yet effective template.

“The regime – unlike the opposition – has a list of priorities. At the top of these priorities are two simple things: maintain control of major cities and the lines of transport connecting them,” he said, explaining how the “victory” in Homs fit in to this plan.

“In contrast, the opposition continues to function like a bunch of warlords, acting independently of each other, with each concerned only with maintaining control in his own small area.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 12, 2014, on page 8.




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